The Sunday Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 16, 2018
Scripture: Mark 8:27-38
“Ephphatha,” Jesus told us last week. “Be opened.” After he was opened himself, reminded of God’s mission of infinite compassion, by the Syrophoenecian woman, he commanded us … Ephphatha. I’m hoping you did that last week – allowed yourself to “be opened” by the irresistible influence of the infinite compassion we call “God.” Jesus did …
The first thing Jesus did after his “re-opening” in Mark was to feed a multitude. Another multitude, actually. Mark is the only gospel that records two mass feedings. At the end of chapter six there is the feeding of the five thousand. In the beginning of chapter eight, right after our reading of last week, there is the feeding of the four thousand. The parallels are obvious and it’s easy to think that Mark is just rehashing the “miracle,” incorporating a modified version in this second narrative. But there are considerable differences, too, other than the numbers fed.
The first feeding story was initiated by Jesus’ disciples. They were concerned for the crowd, you may remember. In the second story, after Jesus “remembers” and is opened once again to God, he takes the initiative. And he does this in the same territory he was in when he encountered the woman and healed the deaf man – Gentile territory. This feeding surely included non-Jews as well as Jews. Jesus has indeed opened up. And everything is about to change … for all of us.
Our scripture reading this morning is right at the middle of Mark’s sixteen chapter gospel and it’s a major turning point. The hints about Jesus’ identity in the first half of the Gospel culminate in the confession that Peter will make for us all in just another minute or two. It’s a profound acknowledgment, confessing that the one we follow is Messiah, a confession as misunderstood today as it ever was two thousand years ago.
You see, Mark’s gospel was written in the eighth decade of the first century. The shadow of the first Jewish-Roman, a war that lasted from 66 – 73 CE and ended with the total destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, looms over Mark’s community. Clearly Jesus, who was killed thirty-three years earlier, had not freed them from Roman oppression and domination. Who was he then? And what did it mean to be his followers? This morning’s Gospel reading comes at the midpoint of the writing that was this community’s response to those questions.
There are three parts to this “hinge” passage we’ll read. The first verses lay out a number of titles by which those who had met Jesus, or heard of him, understood him, including “Messiah.”. Verses thirty to thirty-three note what lies ahead for Jesus. And the last five verses lay out what faithful followers, you and I, should expect for our own lives.
Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God. Read Mark 7:27-38 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So … this whole passage is outrageous. Even as familiar as it is for us, from early childhood Sunday school lessons to later adult discussion and study to countless sermons on it, this passage challenges us and offends us on all kinds of levels.
First, there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, which is as provocative a statement as any in the first century Roman Empire. Then, just as his “identity is revealed,” Jesus (again) orders his disciples not to tell anyone. What? Then he upends Peter and the other disciples way of understanding what that title means and predicts his suffering and death, a prediction that has prompted theologians ever since to try and figure out what it means to say that he must “suffer and be killed,” and a prediction that makes Peter rebuke him immediately. That rebuke results in Jesus calling Peter Satan himself! Finally, of course, the most unpleasant part of this passage to us in the 21st century, Jesus offers his bleak and cryptic call to discipleship as “losing our own life.”
After reading these verses, it’s amazing that anyone at all is left being a follower of Christ. And yet, here we are.
Hearing this passage, not for the first time, professing to be some of those followers Jesus speaks of, even though we’re keenly aware that we rarely truly deny ourselves, or rarely sincerely taken up our crosses in any fatalistic way, or honestly “lost our life” for the sake of the gospel. Our minds get set, very quickly and convincingly, on “human things” when our discipleship takes this turn. Our minds turn away from “divine things” as quickly as Peter’s, but I think, for different reasons.
Peter doesn’t understand the true meaning of “the Messiah.” Or at least Mark’s depiction of Peter here doesn’t allow it. It’s a teaching moment from Mark, to be sure. And it’s a lesson we’re still trying to learn. But in Peter’s situation, we might understand his confusion. This encounter is set in Caesarea Philippi, very much a center of Roman presence in the region of northern Galilee. The scene lays itself out as a kind of “political campaign,” where the candidate, Jesus, and his support group are checking on the results of their focus groups: What are the folks saying? “Who do they say I am?” Are they getting the message?
The candidate asks his own entourage who they think he is. They get the right title – Messiah – but they have he wrong understanding of what that title means for Jesus. Peter and the other disciples, two thousand years ago, of course, wanted Jesus to be the “nationalistic Messiah of splendor and glory that returns to destroy Rome and inaugurate a new creation, the Kingdom of God,” in which Israel, of course, has special place. Peter, and the other disciples through him, were rebuked: “Get behind me Satan.” Those are “human things,” not divine ones.
Two thousand years later, we still confess that Jesus is the Messiah, but we still have the wrong understanding of what that title means. To begin with, we’re still waiting for the return of Jesus, except this time as a warrior-king. The majority of Christians in the world today are waiting for a second coming that includes Jesus atop a white stallion, brandishing a sword to rapture the world. (Perhaps some of you here are still waiting for that, despite ten years of a Pastor preaching otherwise!). “Get behind me,” Jesus says. The Second Coming will happen when we realize the first coming was the only coming and we get with the program. And getting with the program means, like Jesus, understanding who we are.
We misunderstand “Messiah,” when we think it was, or is, one particular human being who lived and died in history, who was experienced even more powerfully after his death and was resurrected through a community that bore his name. Messiah, in Greek “Christ,” means God’s anointed. That’s all of us. But we’ve created a community in the church that can never be what they, what we, are supposed to be because we consider our own humanity as an impairment to us. Our creation was called “very good” in the beginning. But, we have so thoroughly debased it since that creation that we quickly assume nothing good could possibly come from us. We’re wrong …
Jesus’ desire for us to set our minds on “Divine Things” is, I believe, exactly about us. It’s what he did: understood his full humanity as divine. Not without challenge, we saw that last week, but open always, or prepared to be opened always, to God’s will. Jesus re-defined the meaning, the function, and the purpose of messiah, God’s anointed. He lived for a “messiahship” whose reign was in the heart of humanity, not beyond it. He taught a “messiahship” that found “God’s anointed” in anyone who, like him, brought good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and who freed the oppressed. He died for a “messiahship” whose only and unstoppable power was love.
We, like Peter, set our minds on “human things” whenever we allow someone else, a conquering warrior King or a Jewish peasant from the first century, to do all the work himself! Jesus said, “You are light, you are the salt. The Kingdom of God is within you.”
You must remember the story of the small church congregation that had fallen on hard times. Some of the members, particularly the younger ones had left, and few if any new members were joining.
One day a travelling preacher stopped at the church for a Sunday morning worship. He gathered, prayed and sang alongside the few members who were still gathering. After worship, the Pastor drew him aside, told him of the problems of the congregation and asked him for his observations and for some advice to share with the other Elders and the rest of the community.
“No one will not listen to my advice,” the traveller replied. “But I’ll share an observation with you.” (Do you remember this story?) “The Messiah dwells among you here in this church,” the traveller told them as he walked on.
“One of us?” wondered the Pastor astonished. “Which one of us?”
The Pastor gathered the Elders together, who listened in amazement to the news. “One of us! But who?” each one asked out loud. Then to themselves they wondered, “It couldn’t be Elder McCarson – or could it?”
“Surely not Elder Vice or Elder Poole. But there are times when …”
“Not Nick Clark, he’s the youngest Elder. Well … maybe. And maybe some of the other youth.”
“Or, could it be me?”
As the news reached the larger community, things began to change in the small congregation as each began to see the Messiah in the other and to hear the Messiah’s words in each word spoken.
Setting our minds of divine things means understanding ourselves as God’s anointed, and doing what Jesus did. That way lies some suffering and some loss. That’s how our passage this morning ends. We must loose our lives. And we’ll explore more in the weeks ahead what that should look like as we continue in Mark. But for now, be opened again this week: Set your minds on Divine Things, accept your roll as a messiah in this world.
Now I’m really gonna rock your world … this sermon hymn is a familiar one, a favorite one. It’s our Gospel sung in five verses. We always sing it about Jesus, in Jesus’ voice: “I danced in the morning …,” Jesus said. This morning, sing it about yourself. The “I,” anywhere in the hymn you sing it, is you. From the beginning of creation, through life, into trial and tribulation, through death and into new life – It’s you.
Rick: You danced in the morning. / Sally: You danced for the fishermen. / Margaret: You leapt up high.
Be not ashamed. Set your mind on Divine Things and you will not disappoint.
May it be so. Let’s sing and dance together. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 16, 2018